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Miller v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

September 28, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the final decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying the application of Plaintiff Heather Miller (“Plaintiff”) for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. (the “Act”). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 10). Because I find substantial evidence to support the decision denying benefits, I will affirm the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff was born on June 5, 1980, and was thirty-four years old as of the date of the hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 533). She testified that she has worked in the past as an assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant, as a certified nurse's assistant in a nursing home, and as a cashier at Casey's. (Tr. 534-538). She testified that she left her most recent job because of her carpal tunnel syndrome and pancreatitis. (Tr. 538). She testified that she her carpal tunnel syndrome causes pain, numbness, and a tendency to drop things (despite a right carpal tunnel release in 2013); that she has diabetes that has led to neuropathy in her feet; that she has pancreatitis that causes abdominal pain; and that she has pain in her lower back and the muscles of her legs. (Tr. 539-40, 543). She testified that she can stand for ten or fifteen minutes before taking a break, can walk for about ten minutes, and can sit for about half an hour at the most. (Tr. 545). With regard to the facts in the Plaintiff's medical records, the Court adopts the facts set forth in Plaintiff's Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts (Doc. 14-1), and Defendant's Statement of Additional Facts (Doc. 20-2). The Court will address specific facts as needed to address the parties' arguments.

         On June 27, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that she has been unable to work since June 6, 2013. (Tr. 639-54). Her applications were initially denied. (Tr. 576-80). Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 583-87). On May 13, 2015, following a hearing, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not under a “disability” as defined in the Act. (Tr. 454-75). Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council. (Tr. 451-53). On June 30, 2016, the Appeals Council declined to review the case. (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies, and the decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

         II. Standard for Determining Disability Under the Act

         To be eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove he or she is disabled. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); Baker v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 955 F.2d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 1992). The Social Security Act defines as disabled a person who is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also Hurd v. Astrue, 621 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2010). The impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see also McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 611 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing the five-step process). At Step One, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, then he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, which is “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities”; if the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. At Step Three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “listings”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant has such an impairment, the Commissioner will find the claimant disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds with the rest of the five-step process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Prior to Step Four, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), which is “the most a claimant can do despite [his or her] limitations.” Moore v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 520, 523 (8th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). At Step Four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can return to his past relevant work, by comparing the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611. If the claimant can perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if the claimant cannot, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Id. At Step Five, the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work in the national economy; if the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); McCoy, 648 F.3d at 611.

         Through Step Four, the burden remains with the claimant to prove that he is disabled. Moore, 572 F.3d at 523. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.; Brock v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1062, 1064 (8th Cir. 2012).

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         Applying the foregoing five-step analysis, the ALJ here found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, June 6, 2013; that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of diabetes mellitus, peripheral neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, and pancreatitis; and that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 459-60). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that she can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can only occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch; should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; should never crawl; is limited to occasional handling, fingering, and feeling with the right upper extremity; and should never be exposed to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. (Tr. 460). The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. 469). However, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff would be able to perform occupations including counter clerk (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) No. 249.366-010, light exertion level, 18, 000 jobs in the national economy), tanning salon attendant (DOT No. 359.567-014, light exertion level, 1, 100 jobs in the national economy); and operator (DOT No. 237.357-014, sedentary exertion level, 12, 500 jobs in the national economy). (Tr. 470). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from June 6, 2013 through the date of his decision. (Tr. 470).

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's decision on two grounds: (1) that the ALJ's RFC finding is too vague to allow meaningful review or to satisfy the specificity required by regulation and policy, because the ALJ limited Plaintiff to “light work” instead of conducting a function-by-function analysis; and (2) that the ALJ erred by relying upon VE responses that were not supported by the DOT and lacked any other basis or reasonable explanation.

         A. Standard for Judicial Review

         The decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed if it complies with the relevant legal requirements and is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g); 1383(c)(3); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Pate-Fires v. Astrue, 564 F.3d 935, 942 (8th Cir. 2009); Estes v. Barnhart, 275 F.3d 722, 724 (8th Cir. 2002). “Substantial evidence ‘is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Renstrom v. Astrue, 680 F.3d 1057, 1063 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Moore, 572 F.3d at 522). In determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, the court considers both evidence that supports that decision and evidence that detracts from that decision. Id. However, the court “‘do[es] not reweigh the evidence presented to the ALJ, and [it] defer[s] to the ALJ's determinations regarding the credibility of testimony, as long as those determinations are supported by good reasons and substantial evidence.'” Id. at 1064 (quoting Gonzales v. Barnhart, 465 F.3d 890, 894 (8th Cir. 2006)). “If, after reviewing the record, ...

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